Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ruining American Education: The Public School Too-long Experiment with “How-to-ism”

Middle School Class, China
Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes in the New York Times about how to fix education. He puts down Michelle Rhee’s reform efforts in Washington D.C. and he puts down the movie Waiting for Superman's praise of charter schools. Instead, he has good words for the teachers unions that are such a roadblock to education reform.

Unsurprisingly, given his ed school background, Mehta recommends more pay and much more status for teachers, seeking to elevate their profession to the level of physicians. And he wants much more money for educational research and development--including at Harvard, one assumes.

In making his point, Mehta notes the U.S.’s poor showing in international student competitions:
In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60% as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America.
These countries also have much stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students’ social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for teachers to focus on their academic needs. These elements create a virtuous cycle: strong academic performance leads to schools with greater autonomy and more public financing, which in turn makes education an attractive profession for talented people.
Here’s the problem. The international rankings Mehta references, the Program for International Student Assessment (2009) or PISA, shows 7 entities at the top--Mehta’s 5 plus China and Hong Kong. China, represented by its leading city, Shanghai, in fact leads the PISA world in all three categories--reading, math, and science. Hong Kong finishes ahead of Singapore and near the top in reading and science, and just behind Singapore in math.

The only non-East Asian (Singapore is mostly Chinese) entities at the top are Canada--9% Asian (2006), less than 2% total Hispanic and Black, i.e., not the U.S.--and Finland, a nation of 5.4 million, smaller than Shanghai or Hong Kong, and about the size of Singapore (5.2 million). Finland’s high PISA ranking--2nd in science, 3rd in reading, 6th in math--is so surprising it’s called “The Finnish Miracle”.

In reading, the only category where Mehta’s PISA-referenced report breaks down the U.S. scores by ethnicity, U.S. Asians outscore everybody but China, U.S. whites are even with Canada, and the U.S. ranks 15th overall because of low scores by Hispanics and Blacks (38% of U.S. public school population). Ethnicity, or culture, is the big divider, but in discussing PISA scores (even though he elsewhere mentions, “huge gaps by race . . . persist”), Mehta’s article completely ignores culture.

Mehta also draws a failing grade for his assertion that Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, and Canada “have much stronger welfare states” that contribute to their higher PISA scores. In fact, only Finland and Canada put a higher share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than does the U.S. into government, with Canada nearly the same; less than 1% higher. The East Asian entities--those with most of the top scores--all have lower government shares of GDP, with Hong Kong, China, and Singapore less than half the U.S.’s share.  Be wary of academics writing in the New York Times.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, has examined the same PISA data as Mehta. He writes the nations that best combine “excellence with equity” include Korea, Finland, Japan, and Canada, where “everyone knows what is required to get a given qualification, in terms both of the content studied and the level of performance that has to be demonstrated to earn it.”

According to Hirsch:
In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.
Hirsch is focused on the verbal gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, which he calls “the Matthew Effect”--Matthew 25:29 says: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Hirsch believes
Advantaged students who arrive in the classroom with background knowledge and vocabulary will understand what a textbook or teacher is saying and will therefore learn more; disadvantaged students who lack such prior knowledge will fail to understand and thus fall even further behind, relative to their fellow students.
Hirsch understands the cultural gap that so pervades U.S. lower education. He concludes with something no ed school professor like Mehta is likely to reveal--U.S. education went bad 80 years ago:
an intellectual revolution needs to occur to undo the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s. We can’t afford to victimize ourselves further by continued loyalty to outworn and mistaken ideas [such as] how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge. My hope is that some influential district superintendent will require a specific grade-by-grade knowledge sequence. The striking success of [just] one major urban district could transform . . . the nation.
But don’t we have such an effort in Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top”?   Ze'ev Wurman, a prominent software architect, electrical engineer and longtime math advisory expert in California and Washington, D.C., says of the federal attempt to impose a national math curriculum on America’s schools:
I believe the Common Core marks the cessation of educational standards improvement in the United States. No state has any reason left to aspire for first-rate standards, as all states will be judged by the same mediocre national benchmark enforced by the federal government. Moreover, there are organizations that have reasons to work for lower and less-demanding standards, specifically teachers unions and professional teacher organizations. While they may not admit it, they have a vested interest in lowering the accountability bar for their members. ...This will be done in the name of “critical thinking” and “21st-century' skills,” and in faraway Washington, D.C., well beyond the reach of parents and most states and employers.
Better to keep searching at the local level for solutions that work with disadvantaged students, particularly from ethnic minorities, while staying away from “solutions” favored by status quo teachers unions with outdated “how-to-ism” (or “progressive”) education agendas.

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